AIKEN - Asking railroads to give cities advance notice before shipping hazardous materials would prove too costly at the moment, compared with the level of security provided in return, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta wrote recently to Augusta Mayor Bob Young.
Mr. Young and other members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors asked Mr. Mineta and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to review hazardous materials notification guidelines after the Jan. 6 train crash and chlorine spill in Graniteville that killed nine people.
In his response, dated April 25, Mr. Mineta wrote: "given that thousands of shipments crisscross U.S. cities daily and that the specific route those shipments will follow is not always known well in advance, the issue of pre-notification is intricate and difficult.
"While on the surface, prior notification to each community before each shipment passes through seems like a worthwhile concept, studies have shown that transmitting this information accurately and maintaining awareness of it at a local level is too costly and offers only a marginal benefit," the secretary wrote.
Emergency officials who immediately responded to the Graniteville crash were unknowingly engulfed in a toxic cloud of chlorine.
They were forced to retreat from the scene and confer with other officials before responders in protective clothing accurately identified the substance. A symbol on the chlorine tanker that identified its contents was obscured in the wreckage.
The conference of mayors has been calling for advance notification of hazardous rail shipments and lists of such substances that are stored in rail yards since the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Young said.
He declined to respond directly to Mr. Mineta's letter because the conference of mayors is preparing a unified response, but he did say he "wouldn't expect" the group's stance to change.
"The conference has made its position clear since 2001," Mr. Young said.
Messages left at the conference of mayor's headquarters in Washington, D.C., weren't immediately returned.
The Graniteville disaster sparked varying degrees of renewed interest in railroad safety from local officials across the country.
The District of Columbia proposed barring shipments of hazardous materials through its jurisdiction, while Aiken County leaders pleaded with Norfolk Southern, which owned both trains involved in the January crash, to slow its train speeds.
State Rep. Roland Smith, R-Langley, sharply rejected Mr. Mineta's response to the conference of mayor's letter.
"How much is one life worth?" he asked. "We lost nine.
"I think we need to know. Absolutely, we deserve to know."
Major railroads, such as Norfolk Southern and CSX, are required each year to list what materials they ship through a city, but not when.
In his letter, Mr. Mineta said his agency had "begun to explore enhancements of this information, such as the seasonal nature of various commodity flows, to enable better response planning.
"For example, it is typical that more anhydrous ammonia moves during planting season and more liquefied petroleum gas moves during the heating season," he wrote.
Mr. Mineta's letter also provided hope that improved notification systems could be forthcoming.
"The availability of secure, web-based technology, and the increasing sophistication of technology available to local dispatchers and response personnel, present new opportunities that we are exploring," he wrote.
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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